Tag Archives: Bruce Willis

What Just Happened (2008)

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After making Sleepers (1996) and Wag The Dog (1997) in quick succession, it would be another eleven years before Barry Levinson directed Robert De Niro again. The result was What Just Happened (2008), a movie that takes a look behind the curtain of the movie industry. While Wag The Dog featured a film producer determined to take credit for his part in a huge spin operation, What Just Happened goes to show that film production, with all its stresses, is a thankless task.

There’s plenty going on in the life of Ben (De Niro), one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers, whose star power is beginning to lose its twinkle. His recent movie tested poorly with audiences and its director, despite not having final cut, is keen to preserve its artistic integrity despite the studio’s pressure to apply loss limitation by changing the ending. Ben’s forthcoming movie is also under threat, this time of never being made if its star, Bruce Willis (as himself), won’t shave off his massive beard. And if his professional life isn’t hectic enough, there’s the domestic issues to contend with also, chief among them a second ex-wife who he can’t quite split with despite her sleeping with a married screenwriter on the side.

The two weeks of the movie’s timeframe sees Ben negotiate all these issues with different levels of success. De Niro contributes an unmemorable performance, which is disappointing in the context as, with his long filmography, there must be a line of producers to take inspiration from. It may be that he keeps it all in — his first ex-wife notes that secrets seem to be the family business — and that’s why he remains practically blank throughout, although it just feels that there’s little to work with. Indeed, it’s the supporting cast that adds colour.

Stealing the show is British film director Jeremy Brunell (Michael Wincott‘s blend of Keith Richards and Sid Vicious) who cares only for his artistic integrity in fierce opposition to the Hollywood machine, represented by Catherine Keener‘s bottom-line obsessed studio executive. Or, as he puts it: “you can make a film that has a bit more profundity to it and somehow people actually remember, or the same old load of bollocks”. John Turturro, Stanley Tucci, and, Kristen Stewart do well with their occasional appearances. But it’s the actors playing themselves that appear to be relishing their roles. Sean Penn, star of Brunell’s movie (its contentious finale showing a dog getting shot in the head), worries that the film will still have “edge” after the cut for Cannes changed the finale. And Bruce Willis relishes sending himself up while simultaneously mocking the pompous behaviour of an overpaid Hollywood prima donna.

As a comedy What Just Happened throws up the occasional laugh without really being funny and as a satire it doesn’t cut deep enough, but there’s a perfectly decent, if lack-lustre, story here. Based on the memoirs of Art Linson — incidentally also the screenwriter and producer here — this study of Hollywood politics perhaps suffers due to Linson’s overbearing closeness to the material. It certainly brings up issues of art versus money but it doesn’t quite burst the bubble that Hollywood has made for itself. There are many subtle in-jokes (such as a Jewish agent who, like many others before him, has changed his name to something more Gentile) or hints at the industry’s lust for money and the audience pandering it will do to bring in dollars. But, in the course of the movie, What Just Happened turns out to be not that much. It just shows that even those deemed powerful within the system still answer to someone.

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The Expendables 2 (2012)

The Expendables 2 (2012)

If The Expendables (2010) left the burning question of why it even existed, what further reason is there for The Expendables 2 (2012, 103 mins) to exist? Well, apart from making studio shareholders enough cash to roll around in, the only possible reason (wishful thinking, here) must be to correct the wrongs of the first. The most notable difference is that Sylvester Stallone is no longer behind the camera (that duty now with Simon West, of 1997’s Con-Air) and this is immediately an improvement. Where Stallone’s The Expendables, in all its ridiculousness, still wanted to play itself straight this sequel is much more knowing in its sending up of the genre and is better for it.

Excepting Mickey Rourke, the old crew are reunited here. Stallone returns as Barney Ross with main banter buddy Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) by his side. Dolph Lundgren‘s crazy Gunner Jensen is as mad as ever and Jet Li‘s Yin Yang (making only a brief appearance before bailing out) is still the butt of jokes. Surplus to requirements, Randy Couture and Terry Crews both resume their minor roles to round out the original squad. But there’s more, this time, as we also meet Billy The Kid (Liam Hemsworth) and get some female representation from Maggie (Nan Yu).

Part of the problem with the The Expendables was that we never got to know much about the characters. They were muscular guys with guns; what else did you need to know? However, the lack of background plays to the detriment of this movie’s set-up, namely expecting the audience to care for a character that they have been introduced to only a few scenes before. What misfortune befalls this character leads to a revenge story being spun out of some nonsense about Soviet plutonium barrels buried in a Bulgarian mine, with Jean-Claude Van Damme (as Vilain) as villain.

The story drifts from one shoot-out to the next, but The Expendables 2 feels as if it’s less about the action than it is the cameos. Whereas in the first we got a brief scene between Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, here they rack up more screen time, happily trading each other’s catchphrases, no doubt to the delight of the action audience, and getting down and dirty with some weaponry. Charisma Carpenter returns briefly, providing some home life continuity. But the big appearance here — and given recent press releases about who has and hasn’t signed up for the third, big appearances are no doubt the reason that future films in the franchise will exist — is Chuck Norris‘s lone wolf, Booker.

Compared to the gravel-voiced meatheads that comprise the main team, Norris, softly spoken and with a thinner build, seems a far cry from the typical action hero, but he’s a dab hand with a gun and, if the Chuck Norris Facts internet meme is to be believed, the hardest badass in the universe. Therefore it’s fun to see the man himself acknowledge these in the movie’s world. The humour in seeing him deliver one of his own facts is arguably one of the highlights here, especially as much humour still comes from that age old action movie staple: the corny quip (i.e. “Rest in pieces!”).

While there’s not much for most of the cast to do (this is still very much about Stallone and Statham) the action scenes do come across better. Fight scenes no longer consist of the split second shots that marred the first, and therefore we see here actual physical endeavours being undertaken. Jet Li, whose martial arts were ridiculously underused previously are here given a chance to shine. But, think action movie, and it’s less about the action than it is the crazy weaponry, and that is bountiful too.

While guns, explosions, and prolonged fisticuffs are par for the course in such movies, there’s no reason why it should be presented at a cartoonish level. Yes, The Expendables 2 knows it’s aping its cinematic lineage, but in a world where serious things happen (Vilain enslaves a village to retrieve the plutonium from a mine) can’t there be any consequences (for anyone) other than the villain’s eventual death? Is the world at large blind to such goings on? Where has this Vilain guy appeared from or are we just expected to accept he’s bad and go with it? And, once the Expendables roll into town, who’s going to clean up their mess?

These may just be the questions of a mind meandering, uninspired with death after death of unnamed goons. And that may be the issue here — that the movie is not interested in being more than it can be. Why would it, when the story is secondary to the cast and the audience is assured? But the questions keep on coming because the mind, in trying to disengage, needs something to do and The Expendables provides no viable food for thought. Mantras of must kill bad guys and must get revenge leave little to mentally chew on.

If there was a way of blocking sentient thoughts while watching this then maybe it could be enjoyable. There’s some laughs from the occasional meta-humour and it loves a big all-guns-blazing set-piece, but overall it feels like a revolving door where actors come and go based on other commitments, with the storyline dictated more by availability than coherence. If this continues into the next instalment (which is more than likely) then we have a franchise that maintains interest by increasing its stable of flat characters rather than developing what it already has.

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The Expendables (2010)

The Expendables (2010)

Into a prolonged hostage situation in the Gulf of Aden come a team of mercenaries. While this opening hostage rescue in The Expendables (2010, 103 mins) appears tense, any expectation of gritty, thoughtful action is soon dispelled when a single shot comically cuts a Somali pirate in half. But that single shot isn’t enough to solve the problem at hand. Therefore, after a hail of bullets, knives, and kung fu kicks rains down on the remaining pirates, all that’s left are the hostages and the eponymous Expendables. As manifestos go, it certainly gives warning of what little to expect of the movie.

That preliminary shootout introduces us to the characters. There’s Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone, acting and directing), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), and Yin Yang (Jet Li). If they are the A Team, then the B Team support are Toll Road (Randy Couture), Hail Caesar (Terry Crews), and Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren). None of these men has a back story, although there’s a plot strand following Christmas, his lover (Charisma Carpenter), and her other man that seeks to give viewers something different to focus on, but it’s dispensed in two scenes and impacts the story not a jot.

The movie’s main plot revolves around killing General Garza (David Zayas), the puppet dictator of a Latin American island state. The job comes in a scene whereby Stallone gets together with Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Willis is Mr Church, the man with the job. Schwarzenegger is, like Stallone, a mercenary, only he knows the situation on Garza’s island and rejects outright the opportunity. A scene like this must be the action fan’s wet dream, putting together three action movie legends for the first time. In its short duration, we get sly knowing jibes at each other with some cute banter thrown in (“You guys aren’t gonna start sucking each other’s dicks, are ya?” asks Church).

With the exception of Tool (Mickey Rourke), one liners are the only dialogue the guys in this film trade. It’s macho-to-the-max, empty and with little substance. Although many of the cast made their name in eighties action flicks, and this movie is a tribute to those days, there is little to suggest in the serious delivery that much has moved on since. The movie overall may not be serious — explosions, gun porn, and hyperbolic fisticuffs — but the way it’s played certainly is, even if done in a knowing way. It’s a give-the-people-what-they-want sort of film, and in this Stallone comes up with the goods as regards pulling an action movie together from a range of men who would typically take the lead in their own vehicles.

But if Stallone is giving the people what they want in The Expendables, the question must surely be why do people want this? Pyromaniacs aside, who’s eyes light up at the thought of meaningless explosions? Who punches the air when a bad guy dies? Who cheers on the good guys? Who doesn’t demand more from a film? Because in a film like this it’s never a question of if the protagonists will survive an encounter, but purely when they will. The audience knows that, whatever the story, the outcome is assured. Who wants to go into a movie and know how it ends?

While a man can stand around firing an unlimited barrage of bullets all day, much of the actors here have seen better days. Most of the physical action is delivered in quick succession of cuts that are too frenzied and make it difficult to recognise any athleticism. In this, perhaps the eighties action hero has had his day and, with the likes of Jason Bourne and James Bond‘s continued appeal,  Stallone and contemporaries are a few brain cells short. There’s no emotional connection with any characters, nor any underpinning motivation. There’s no thrills in the big budget set pieces nor any real danger in anything that happens on screen.  Ultimately there’s no rhyme or reason for this movie to exist.

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